Healthy Love Stories in Literature

I’m rewatching Madam Secretary and reigniting my crush on Henry McCord. Yes, the show’s political intrigue is fascinating, but I also adore the relationship modeled by Elizabeth and Henry when they are navigating the complications of parenting and marriage. They are definitely in my top three TV couples, along with Hodgins and Angela from Bones and Zoë and Wash from Firefly. But where are the healthy love stories in books?

When I scan my bookshelf, I see lots of dramatic relationships and star-crossed lovers. Healthy love stories aren’t jumping out at me. Is it me? Is it the novels I choose to read? Or are healthy relationships hard to find in literature?

I took to Google to see what I might be missing and the search didn’t go so well.

Un-healthy love stories abound

Searching for “healthy love stories” led mostly to self-help books for couples and a few critiques of relationships in literature. Switching to variations on “great love stories” did bring up many lists of couples that are said to be the most romantic in literature. And I emphatically disagreed with most of them.

Let’s look at a few:

Cathy and Heathcliff – Wuthering Heights – Intense emotions? Yes. Healthy love? No. Cathy and Heathcliff were doomed from the start, despite Cathy uttering what I consider to be one of the most romantic lines in fiction, “Nelly, I am Heathcliff…He’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

Romeo and Juliet Romeo and Juliet – They were virtual strangers. Yes, they were infatuated at first sight and would rather die than be apart… but doesn’t that describe a lot of hormonal teenagers? If the families hadn’t been feuding, maybe Romeo would have courted Juliet, and they might have decided that parting would be more sweet than sorrow.

Scarlett and Rhett – Gone With the Wind – Like Cathy and Heathcliff, Scarlett and Rhett were cut from the same cloth. Pragmatic in the midst of idealists, confident in their own abilities, and not about to minimize themselves for anyone else. But they were never honest with each other when it mattered the most. (Let’s pretend that bodice-ripping sequel never happened.)

Sayuri/Chiyo and the Chairman – Memoirs of a Geisha – Uh, no. She’s a child sold into slavery and he’s the distinguished business man who was once nice to her. Meeting him is a turning point, and it’s understandable why she idealized him. And, yes, (SPOILER) he does watch out for her and eventually provide her with a good life as his mistress, but they are on completely uneven ground and that does not make for a healthy love story.

Katniss and Peeta – The Hunger Games – No. No, no, no. Just, no. Trauma bonding is not a love story. I love this series partly because it does show how wrecked Katniss is by the incredible amount of physical and psychological trauma she survives. Peeta may have had a crush on her all along, but her feelings for him were clearly based in guilt and shared trauma. I’m cool with the end of the series if you see it as a settling for whatever contentment she can manage, but this is NOT a love story!!!

Fairly healthy love stories exist

What pairings would I consider couple goals? It’s tough because healthy relationships often happen after a book takes a couple through the dramatic twists and turns that lead them to happily ever after. Or a relatively healthy love story could still end in tragedy. Gotta get in that dramatic story that pulls at the heartstrings! Yet, there are some fairly good relationships that come to mind.

Henry and Clare – The Time Traveler’s Wife – Henry has a genetic condition that makes him involuntarily skip around through time. Clare does not. As a result, they’ve interacted at many different ages, which leads some readers to complain about the ethics of their match up. That didn’t bother me, especially because older Henry is conscious and careful when meeting young Clare. Overall, they treat each other with respect and kindness, despite circumstances that are beyond complicated.

Oliver and Jenny – Love Story – This is a sad story but one that captures young love so well. Oliver and Jenny are smitten from the beginning. They challenge each other and grow together, changing their individual plans to create a life together. Some criticize the idea that “love means never having to say you’re sorry” but notice that it doesn’t say you don’t have to be sorry, just that it doesn’t have to be said. Accepting that someone is sorry is a bigger part of forgiveness than simply hearing the words “I’m sorry.”

Anne and Gilbert – Anne’s House of Dreams* – Okay, I quibble a bit when this Anne of Green Gables couple shows up on lists of romantic couples. They don’t model a healthy love story in Anne of Green Gables, but they’re kids in that book and they do become friends by the end. Much later in the series, after a romantic misstep in college, they do finally settle into a happy, healthy marriage (in Anne’s House of Dreams). It’s a wholesome love story partly because they grow up and navigate friendship before choosing love.

Kitty and Levin – Anna Karenina – Occasionally, Anna and Vronsky show up on lists of great love stories. That’s sad to me because Anna Karenina offers a much better love story with Kitty and Levin. If you’ve only seen the movies, Kitty and Levin may seem like secondary characters. In the novel, their relationship is told in parallel with Anna and Vronsky’s. Where Anna and Vronsky jump into a selfish, sexually driven affair, Kitty and Levin grow into a healthy marriage where they rely on communication and compassion to get through their difficulties.

Celie and Shug – The Color Purple – I’m hesitant to include this relationship as a healthy love story, but it’s one that keeps coming to mind. The relationship certainly does not have a healthy start, as Shug is having an affair with Celie’s abusive husband. But as the women bond, Shug teaches Celie about sexual pleasure and about learning to love herself. Shug plays a huge role in Celie’s eventually independence and happiness. Though they don’t end up together, they do love each other and care about each other’s happiness. It may not be the best model of a healthy relationship, but it is the healthiest relationship in a situation that is rife with jealousy, power-struggles, and abuse.

Writing model relationships

As a writer, I want to model healthy relationships in my own stories… but there’s also a desire to reflect on life and, unfortunately, life is full of unhealthy relationships. I haven’t written any books that I would classify as “love stories” and have focused more on friendships and personal growth. Yet, I have gotten positive feedback on my depiction of marriage in To the Left of Death, and have given a lot of thought to how I explore Amanda’s teenage relationships in The Psychic Traveler Society series.

I think it can be a challenge to balance a dramatic story with a solid love story, but it’s good to see that modeled in fiction. Too often, people see the dysfunctional but intense emotions in fictional relationships and think that’s what it means to be in love. I hope that changes and society can shift more toward equality and respect in what’s expected from “great” love stories.

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